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How Labeling Things Helps Keep You Alive

Unlike his mommy, Pearl has never aspired to be label-free. If it looks the least bit questionable, he is going to let it know to GO AWAY RIGHT NOW. That is our survival instinct in a nutshell.

As I get older (every single day) I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with labels.

Specifically, I am fascinated by my mind’s seemingly unquenchable compulsion to label everything. I mean – EVERYTHING.

Tall. Short. Big. Small. Petite. Paunchy. White. Black. Red. Blue. Male. Female. Young. Old. Rich. Poor. Success. Failure.

It has a label for pretty much everyone and everything that crosses its path.

Not only do I find this to be proof that my excessively glowing vocabulary scores on those long-ago SAT exams weren’t a fluke, but I also am starting to dig down underneath my feelings that these labels are meant to serve as judgments.

I am starting to really question whether my mind’s continual efforts to label everything, whether the label is negative or positive, as judgmental. If I didn’t take it all so personally (thank you, Don Miguel Ruiz), would I still criticize and shame myself for being “so judgmental” of others and of myself?

I am starting to suspect I wouldn’t.

What if there was – is – a deeper purpose to all those labels? What if – crazy as it may seem today – once upon a time those very same labels could literally keep me alive? 

Rewind several hundred thousand years to a time when I was a lot hairier and was still learning how to sharpen a spear and make fire. During this time, if I caught a rustle of sound or a flash of movement behind the rock just up ahead of me, I would have really needed to know some things in a hurry:

How big is it? Huge? Tiny? Average-sized?

Is it fat or skinny? Tall or short?

What color is it? Black? Grey? Brown? Some other color?

In this way, I could figure out if the sound and movement was coming from a squirrel or a saber-toothed tiger. I could decide whether to go hunting (ever heard of “squirrel stew?”) or quickly retreat to avoid being hunted.

These labels weren’t judgmental back then. They weren’t even negative or positive. They were simply necessary to keep me on this planet, breathing and functioning, for one more moment.

Somehow, despite the many memos sent up the chain over the centuries, I don’t think my ancient reptilian limbic brain stem (the same little lump that houses my epically hyper-vigilant fight-or-flight response) ever got the message that the saber-toothed tigers are now extinct and that squirrels are everywhere.

It doesn’t understand that it no longer needs to alert me to the color/size/shape/etc of the beings moving towards, away from or around me. It has no idea that differences don’t have to be scary or even noteworthy. It doesn’t know that, far from helping me, it is actually hurting me as it keeps spewing out so very many endless labels.

Why can’t I just see people as people – all shapes, all sizes, all colors, all genders, all ages – as people?

It is for the same reason that I can’t just see all beings as beings. One of them, even now, even today, might be poisonous. Or hungry. Or nesting and oh-so territorial.

On this level, I still need the labels my limbic brain marks “urgent” and sends to my mind to forward along to me. I still need to know if the long slithery being on my driveway has red and yellow bands of color (coral snake – very venomous) or red and black bands of color (scarlet king snake – very non-venomous).

Sadly, I still need to know whether the homo sapiens in my near vicinity look pissed off and powerful or kind and friendly.

I still need these labels – not so many perhaps as I once did, and some more than others – but even when they make me desperately unhappy and even when I direct them back at myself (since when did I become an enemy I must warn myself about?) they still serve a purpose.

Today’s Takeaway: The more I ponder my own tendencies to notice the negative over the positive, the differences between me and others, the inequalities between beings and species, the more they all point back to the same place: my limbic brain and my deep-rooted instincts to survive. I might not like it and it might not be the “in” thing to use labels anymore, but once again no one has let my fight-or-flight survival instinct in on the secret. And even if they tried, I sincerely doubt it would listen. Can you relate?

How Labeling Things Helps Keep You Alive

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2018). How Labeling Things Helps Keep You Alive. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Oct 2018
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